In an earlier post, we looked at the nature of the two six-day creation references in Exodus (Exodus 20:11 and Exodus 31:17). They both relate it to the establishment of the Sabbath, but they differ in specific Hebrew words used and the mention of additional details. We found that they both pointed to an anthropomorphism in Genesis 2:1-3, as does that text itself. This obviously figurative element in the creation account supports a figurative interpretation for the whole thing.
However, when we looked at the two Exodus passages, we took them out of context. Would our conclusions change if the contexts were considered? I don’t think so, and in this and some future posts, we’ll take a look at what the contexts of Exodus 20:11 and Exodus 31:17 tell us about interpreting those passages. I think it will become apparent that the context not only supports a figurative interpretation, it even suggests a perspective for Genesis 1 as figurative that is consistent with other Scripture. We’ll also see how such a perspective would have made it easy for ancient Israelites to miss the figurative nature and establish a long-standing tradition that is strongly defended today.
We’ll start by looking at the Ten Commandments as immediate context for Exodus 20:11. Following that, we’ll include the rest of the Law, of which the Ten Commandments are the centerpiece. Lastly, we’ll look at the context of Exodus 31:17 — instructions regarding construction and operation the tabernacle. In looking at these contexts, we’ll see that other Scripture teaches us how these Exodus passages present physical pictures that echo unseen spiritual realities. Seeing the Genesis references embedded in such contexts, it becomes even more apparent how the narrative is best seen as a figurative divine oracle.
In the text leading up to chapter 20, the Israelites were first delivered out of Egypt. Then in the desert, they experienced victories, failures of character, God’s provision, and tests. Eventually they came to Mount Sinai, where Moses went up to receive instruction from the Lord while the people watched the Lord’s awesome presence on the mountain. Moses made several trips up and down the mountain, the people promised to obey, and Moses received the Law.
There are two broad sections in the accounts of what Moses received. The Law is given in the first, while construction of the tabernacle is described in the second. It is in these contexts of Law and tabernacle that the two references to a six-day creation occur. The first reference occurs at the very beginning of the Law, in the Ten Commandments.
And God spoke all these words, saying,
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”
Exodus 20:1-17 (emphasis added)
Notice that three of the commandments include a reason for obeying that commandment (the reasons are emphasized in the text above). One of these is the fourth commandment. It concerns the Sabbath, and is one of the Exodus verses that references the Genesis creation account. Given in the midst of the Ten Commandments, this verse clearly shows the dependence of the Sabbath on the Genesis creation narrative. A closer look at this immediate context shows that there are several other commands that have associated reasons. We can compare the fourth commandment reason to the others to see if there is anything to learn. Below, the three reasons are shown so we can compare them more directly.
For I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Here, God points to His nature as the reason for not allowing them to make and worship idols. In doing so, He gives us a picture of the difference between His anger and His love, using a numerical comparison. Now, is the timeframe and application of His iniquity as certain and precise as this would indicate, or are these statements really just a picture of the seriousness with which He takes idolatry? Although some claim there are corresponding patterns of sin and punishment extending across generations, I tend to agree with those who say that this statement is really just using the numerical comparison to make a strong point. It seems this gives us a physical prohibition stemming from the unseen spiritual reality of God’s nature. We are given a picture of the unseen as a precise chronology, but it is only a picture.
For the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
This statement shows us the seriousness of misusing God’s name. It seems a straight-forward statement of God’s unforgiveness for this sin. But is this a literal ultimatum, or hyperbole intended to indicate the seriousness of misusing the Lord’s name? Or perhaps the misuse of His name in this statement is really a picture of a broader heart problem that isn’t fully characterized by the simplistic picture. Again, the real issue seems to be the unseen spiritual problem of a hard heart, and we are given a picture to teach us the seriousness.
For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day.
This statement gives the justification for the Sabbath, relating it to God’s own activities. Like the statements above, we seem to have something as clear as the literal ultimatum and as concrete as the numerical comparison. But we saw that those are better seen as pictures of unseen spiritual reality, so that the unseen reality is the real basis of the physical command. Likewise, could it be that this physical statement is really a picture that teaches about God’s role as creator? Then the unseen aspects of that truth form the basis for our physical response.
We can draw a consistent picture across all these examples, in which an unseen spiritual reality is pictured in concrete terms. Using physical statements and objects to represent spiritual reality is a common process in Scripture, and in this case the process gives us a deeper understanding of the truth upon which each commandment is based. Their use doesn’t mean that the pictures are themselves physical and literal; we need to consider how the ideas are treated in other related Scripture before concluding that.
If we are looking at the creation narrative with an open mind and seeking other Scripture to guide us between a literal and figurative interpretation, these passages indicate that Exodus 20:11 doesn’t necessarily make a strong statement for literal interpretation.
Again, the previous look we took at Exodus 20:11 and Exodus 31:17 showed that they also led to a figurative nature. And here, looking at the context of Exodus 20:11 specifically, we see a consistent perspective that the focus of these passages is to use physical literal terminology to point to spiritual truths, not physical truths, and that those spiritual truths are to be our guidelines.
I think this will become even more clear when we consider the broader context of the Law, of which the Ten Commandments are just the beginning.